Pew: Games Make Good Citizens

Not violent, awkward nitwits

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Whenever some kid loses his mind and commits a heinous, deadly crime, the media and so-called experts start digging through the kid’s video game stash. Voila, Grand Theft Auto, case closed, the video game made him do it. Some research (wow, real research?) from Pew Internet goes against that mindset, suggesting kids learn valuable civics lessons from playing games, and just like another activity no one wants to admit, everybody does it.

Okay, all but three percent in Pew’s survey of 12-17 year olds didn’t play video games, online or off, mobile or immobile. I’m guessing their parents think video games lead to violence, or worse, probably sex. I have no data to back that last part up. But I think a number like 97 percent should be pretty compelling evidence against the violence theory; surely if all the kids are playing, not all the kids are shooting up their schools, right?

Not even 50 percent.

Or ten.

Or even one percent.

Every generation needs their satan to strive against. In the Fifties it was Elvis. The Seventies had Ozzie. My crew had Garbage Pail Kids and Twisted Sister.

Anyway, not too long ago Susquehanna predicted in-game advertising would grow 70 percent year-over-year to reach $1 billion. That may be set to increase even more in light of the news that pretty much the whole of the next generation of spenders are playing games. Gaming sites are the social networks of the next generation, and it might be a good idea to start learning how that generation thinks.

The Pew report offers a surprise to anyone with experience raising teenagers, and that is that, yes, they actually do think, and probably very differently. Ninety-nine percent of boys and 94 percent of girls play video games, most of them within the racing, puzzle, sports, or action and adventure categories. The typical teen plays five different types of games, and 40 percent play eight different types.

And they probably do it while texting and tweaking their MySpace account.

Three quarters play with others some of the time, 82 percent play games alone occasionally, and about two thirds play with other teens in the same room. Almost a third of them play games intended for older players, including those marked as Mature or Adults Only. Twelve year-olds do this as much as 17 year-olds. 

“The stereotype that gaming is a solitary, violent, anti-social activity just doesn’t hold up. The average teen plays all different kinds of games and generally plays them with friends and family both online and offline," said Pew’s Amanda Lenhart. “For most teens, gaming runs the spectrum from blow-‘em-up mayhem to building communities; from cute-and-simple to complex; from brief private sessions to hours long interactions with masses of others."

It’s these “hours long interactions with masses of others” that are teaching our kids about society, and it’s their diversity of interests that should get the online marketer’s attention. Let me take down another stereotype: Video games make kids vapid zombies. Not true. Over half of gamers play games that force them to consider moral and ethical issues; 43 percent play games where they practice decision-making in a virtual communities, cities or nations; 40 percent report learning about social issues. These reports were made by teens across all demographics, regardless of family income, race, and ethnicity.

Again: the whole of this generation is playing games and learning to make judgments on the consequences of the future, the latter of the two something very difficult for the teenage mind to consider. (Please no angry teenage comments about that. There’ve been studies, not that we need them to know teens are impulsive. It’s an evolutionary survival thing.)

The Pew report reminded me of a conversation I had with my 15-year-old stepson. In early August—when we were on the brink WWIII remember?—and the conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted, I explained the best and simplest I could the complex geopolitical situation

“Oh,” he said. “Just like in Mass Effect.”

It bodes well for society, I think. I hope. And, to all you communication professionals out there, reaching this group effectively with any type of message in the future is going to have to be reflective of the world as they know it, and they know it as a world bombarded by messages, usually conflicting ones. Understanding them now is understanding your next generation of consumers, citizens, and – dare I?—world changers.

Pew: Games Make Good Citizens
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  • http://www.roxolidstudios.com Liam Shearer

    I don’t think I’ve ever read an article that defies everything stereo-typical parents and politicions think about video games. Well written Jason!


    My parents are the ‘type’ (for lack of a better word,) that understand this, and think that its fine for me to play games as much as I want, under the terms that I do well in school and never drop out as well as doing physical activities.


    Thanks, I will surely be getting as many people as I can to read this!



  • Richard

    back in 1978, I spent a day at the local shopping mall to avoid a tiny difference in opinion of the teenage type with my parents. There, at the mall, I found one of the first TRS-80 machines unattended and spent most of the day trying to figure out, what this thing can do.

    Later a neighbor found me and dragged me home. My parents were all prepared for the next round with the stubborn kid, only to discover that the kid had dismissed the matter as unimportant already. Getting a computer was now the important question, nothing else.

    Big surprise, the answer was ‘no’ and it came down to me getting myself a cheap kit and building my own computer. And to do what with it, once it worked? Solve complex equations? Do homework?

    Riduculous. I programmed games and played them with other kids when they came for a visit. With those 64 x 32 pixel (!) graphics, my parents did not worry much about violence. But they certainly did not really know what to think of all this and perhaps even today are still a bit clueless. They grew up without computers and until today never needed them for anything. And looking at the pace with which computer technology has advanced since then, each generation of parents has been almost at the same disadvantage.

    As for the violence – here in Germany young men usually are drafted into the army just after they leave school. The same politicians who blame computer games for practically everything also considered it perfectly fine to hand me a uniform and an assault rifle and to teach me how to use it. Now which one of those two things might better enable me to do some real violence?

  • Guest

    To the man with a hammer, every problem is a nail.

    Any individual who has a passion for something will not see the issues with its excesses and will see it as a solution for more problems that it actually is: they have their hammer. The suggestion that an on-line life is a suitable for real life is a proposition that supports this premise.

    Individuals don’t behave the same face-to-face as they do on-line. How many flaming sessions have broken out in forums all over the net, when the same discussion would have occured in the pub or a meeting room without incident. My son on-line is a skilled, calculating killing machine, if you met him in the street he is polite and gentle.

    If people behave differently then the situations aren’t realistic, to the responses aren’t realistic and neither are the consequences. How comfortable would you be taking your teenager out for their first driving lesson, they gain speed and approach the first corner at twice the speed that you, an experienced driver, would be comfortable with. "Don’t worry", he says, "I do this all the time on Grand Tourismo": I feel better already.

    Don’t think that I am a complete ludite: I have been developing software professional for too many years. And don’t think I’m out of touch with the youth of today: We have seven children in our family. I do think that digital daycare has it place and will continue to have as the technologies progress, but it isn’t a substitute for real life and shouldn’t be proclaim as being such.

    • Jason Lee Miller

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think you’re a little off the mark, though. True, kids who are killing machines online are often pussycats offline. My stepson is one of them. I think in that situation the game serves as a tension release. And true, game simulation of driving doesn’t mean the kid can drive in real life. But that’s a motor-skills, so to speak, issue not an issues-based, um, issue, that requires certain cognitive skills like judgment or opinion forming or critical thinking. Definitely controlling a 3,000 pound machine is different from handling a video game controller.

      Also, it would be a mistake to say (you didn’t say it, just noting) that video games are causal of behavior. You actually proved that point with your killer-pussycat commentary. Behavior is a complex thing but most of the time it is influenced by relationships, either via modeled behavior by higher ranking or equal peers, or by internal motivations brought about by deeper relationships (usually parental). Saying music or video games is a direct cause of behavior is usually much too simplistic.

      The study focuses on exhibited teen gameplayer behavior and contrasts them with the stereotypes. The stereotypes are effectively obliterated because 97 percent of teens participate in this activity and therefore gamers can no longer be pigeonholed. What’s more, and this is the cool part for anybody who works with teens (I’m a parent, and have been a counselor, and my mother spent 21 years teaching 9th grade civics), the games act as testing grounds for critical thinking as the kids roleplay various scenarios with various consequences, both virtual and actual, if playing amongst their peer groups. This is a much better way for learning civic responsibility and critical thinking than the traditional lecture and skill-and-drill approaches.

      Have I won you over yet?

      • Guest

        My understanding of games programmers is that they are experts in graphics, sound, AI, physics or any number of the specialisms involved in producing a top game. The quality of the modern games is a testament to their abilities, and those of the engineers developing the platforms that support them. These guys’ purpose is to produce a game that people want to play, and keep playing. The the ability to achieve that objective does not include ensuring that the game responds correctly in the sense of civic responsibility or any of the other noble topics that you cite. Gamers learn what they have to do to win the game, not the moral high ground.

        Where we do agree is that learning how to engage with other members of your community is not done effectively in a lecture. I believe the most effective way is to spend time in that community interacting with it for real. Simulations are fine for passing the time, but learning the real skills to which you allude requires contact and interaction with other real people.

        If game playing was the answer then with 97% of all youngsters playing I would have expected the amount of bullying, violence and general thuggery to be reducing as that gaming generation fills a greater proportion of the population. I don’t have any statistics to support my suggestion, but I don’t think that the gaming population has any more civil responsibility than any other generation.

        I’m not saying that the apparent general rise in public disorder offences is linked to the rise in game playing, I don’t believe it is. Unfortunately the clean and tidy solution of allowing children to lock themselves away from the world while they learn how to live in the world is not the answer. They may be safer, cleaner and not getting into trouble, but they aren’t learning civic responsibility.

        I’ll get back to my book now :-)

  • http://www.fatfoogoo.com fatfoogoo

    Jason – thanks for this article.  You’re spot on with the often over used media exploit of  … ooo, plays violent video games, must be a violent person.  Thank you for breathing some much needed sence into this quandry.

    As a lifelong gamer myself, I can confirm your stats and opinions.  Gamers used to be a quirky bunch that had a small niche, but as console and PC games raise the entertainment value bar and diversify, many more people are coming into the circle. 

    I wonder if these same ney sayers are the ones that go home for a light workout on the wii fit later that evening?

  • Laura

    As my subject line says… gaming is a necessary evil for our evolution. Our minds need to speed up, to keep up with evolutionary times. Previously the male of the species had one-dimensional focus. They needed to remove the clutter from their mind when honing in on a pray. The woman kept an eye out for possible danger to their babies, while homo erectus focused in on the kill. Hence men not being able to multi-task and woman can.

    We are now needing to sharpen our intuitive skills, as it will become a survival tool for where we are moving on an evolutionary scale. Gaming is a necessariy evil to hone the mind to be sharper, more focused, to force the intuition to operate intuitively (flying by the seat of your pants), and to assist the male of the species to multitask.

    So gamers LAN away – our survival depends on you


    • Jason Lee Miller

      Excuse me for being professorial…apparently that’s unpopular these days, especially in politics, right? :-)

      First, nitpicking: Homo Erectus is a different species from Homo Sapien. Second, “where we are moving on an evolutionary scale” is pretty vague. Where would that be? Humans have no predators and we control our environments to the point there is little need for physical changes to cope with it. That could change in a heartbeat, of course. We don’t even have to compete for the most basic resources. Point is, evolution is brought on by unrelenting demand for change in order to survive–with six billion of us and growing, we’re having as much trouble as mosquitoes in that respect.

      I’m interested and appreciative of this idea that there is a higher mental and spiritual evolution afoot, which seems to be what you are suggesting when you speak of the next level. This idea requires a higher, objective, universal purpose driving all of us in this grand search meaning, and you might be right we have to mentally evolve some way to survive in a spiritual sense. Who could possibly refute it, though? Might as well embark on a proof of God.

      It’s not too off base. After all we appear to be finished developing physically so long as we are able to ensure our own survival as a species under current conditions. Where else is there to go but mentally and spiritually? However, I’m not sure you can use a basic physical evolution argument to support that.


      • Guest

        On the Evolutionary Treadmill

        Thanks for the correction, yes need to do more gaming to sharpen the brain.

        And yes, I do believe that there is a higher intelligence, although that's not what I am harping on about. Mankind is his own predator, and not so slowly but surely putting the screws on life as we know it, and our survival as a species. If we think about it, we are emotions and an ego away from possibly wiping out this earth of ours, not to mention choking our resources. Although there is another 'predator' and that's starbursts and asteroids, what about the one that's a mile wide and will be swinging passed between earth and our moon in 2028. Okay enough of that, I'm not actually fatalistic.  

        Life needs an impetus to evolve - what caused the first life forms to walk out the sea. Did they think the grass was greener on the other side? No, something forced them to transition.

        That was 400 million years ago (for correction some say 430 million years) It would be a seriously sad day if we think that our physical, mental and spiritual form in the next 1, 2, 10 or 400 million years from now, will be the same... or even if we will still be around in a tangible form. 

        The stress that we live with, the violence - and the everyday threat from losing your job, to failing as a sportsman, to losing your wife, offspring or your life is gearing up for our evolutionary survival. Hence the importance of sharpening our wit, minds, intuition and expanding our thinking process to use more than only the current 10% of our brain capacity currently utilised. 

        Saying that our physical form has developed as much as it can, would be like a very unimaginative woman saying... 'Honey this is as good as it gets.'

        How mind blowing to think where we are going from here - seriously scary and seriously exciting too.

        Laura Hallam

        P.S. Love your Captcha request, which asks you to answer a maths sum to check if you are 'a human visitor'. This question is going to be so quaint in years to come when computers and humans co-exist symbiotically.


      • James

         I had similar thoughts when reading the evolution post.  If we reach a stage where a person’s skill and ability in gaming affects their likelihood of reproducing, then gaming will be a factor in evolution.  But I honestly can’t see that happening any time soon.

         Now my turn to nitpick though.  "we appear to be finished developing physically"? That never happens.  There are numerous on-going changes in the physical structure of humans, the trends of which can be seen over just the last few hundred years.  For one example, there is compelling evidence that, as more and more people wear shoes, we’re in the process of loosing our little toes.  It’s a structure which has diminished in importance and is becoming increasingly redundant.


  • Dylan B

    I can agree with most of your points on principal, and can add a few of my own.  As a high school student of the 90’s (graduated in 99) I was part of the generation that first experienced computer gaming evolving from the more simplistic games(I still have my Atari 2600) to the modern wide variety that exists now.  I was your stereotypical computer geek with poor social skills, however, computer games gave me another bond to other kids.  I found as computer gaming became more mainstream, I could talk with others who were outside my social circle, and created more of a bond with my existing peers.  Occasionally now I can walk by a few ‘socially challenged’ kids and hear them talking excitedly about their skills and techniques on WOW or some other MMORPG.

    As far as the violence in computer games?  I still remember one of my best stress releases was blasting the volume, entering the god code for Doom 2, and then running around with the chainsaw.  I would like to think that it helped me refrain form doing that in real life.

    Real life is different from virtual life. In my opinion whoever can’t tell the difference and runs people over because they did that in GTA is either lying and looking for an excuse to blame someone else, or has other SERIOUS problems that don’t stem from video games.

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